An Incomprehensible Failure – Phoenix Payroll System

Auditor General Michael Ferguson holds a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017, regarding his 2017 Fall Report. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

An Incomprehensible Failure

Phoenix Payroll System – An Incomprehensible Failure

An incomprehensible failure – strong words from Canada’s Auditor General (AG) in his spring report tabled in Parliament last week.

Michael Ferguson described the Phoenix Payroll System disaster as an “incomprehensible failure”.  He used the same term to refer to his audit of whether Indigenous Services Canada satisfactorily measured and reported on Canada’s overall progress in closing the socio-economic gaps between on-reserve First Nations people and other Canadians, and his audit of Employment Training for Indigenous People.

 

Why Have Incomprehensible Failures Occurred?

In the introductory message to his spring 2018 report, the AG provides his thoughts as to why these failures have occurred.  He suggests the current culture in the Canadian Federal Government has created an obedient public service that fears mistakes and risk. He commented that the ability to convey hard truths within the Canadian Federal Government has eroded, as has the willingness of senior levels—including ministers—to hear hard truths. This culture causes the large scale disasters the government is trying to avoid.  The AG is concerned that in absence of a cultural change, similar failures will occur again.

 

Why Should We Be Concerned?

There are a number of reasons why Canadians should be concerned about these failures, why they occurred and why they could reoccur in the current cultural environment.

An obvious concern is the waste of time and money.  For example, the direct impact the Phoenix payroll failure has had on thousands of Canadian public servants.

I have heard comments recently from some working in the Canadian federal public service and for other levels of government about fear of undertaking important initiatives because of Phoenix – creating a false fear that big projects will fail.  Canada cannot continue to stand still because one large scale project was grossly mismanaged.

Successive failures on the scale of Phoenix can contribute to a rise in populism around which there is great debate as to whether it is good or bad for democracy.

And finally what of the current government’s plans to create the next golden era for the public service?  Surely a culture that can lead to incomprehensible failures does little to attract the best and the brightest amongst the millennials the government is trying to engage.

 

Strong Leadership is Needed to Affect Cultural Change

I received my regular monthly highlights from McKinsey while writing today’s post.  My personal highlight was an interesting story about the leadership journey of Abraham Lincoln, which is worth reading at a time when strong leaders seem to be sorely lacking and desperately needed.  In the article, A. G. Lafley, former CEO of Procter & Gamble, maintains that one of the three key ingredients in making a leader is the moment when “an individual recognizes a moment has arrived that demands his or her leadership”.  For Phoenix, that moment has long passed.

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Francis Liska
CEO OTUS Group | OTUS Group
Francis is a Chartered Professional Accountant, Certified General Accountant, Certified Information Systems Auditor, Certified Internal Control Auditor and a Certified Management Consultant. He holds a degree in Business Administration from Cape Breton University and a Post Graduate Diploma in Applied Information Technology. He has also completed graduate studies in decision analysis at Carleton University.

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